Like it or not, the SUV, in its many forms, is here to stay. High-riding wagon-esque vehicles now account for over half of Australia's new car sales, and other bigger markets around the world are following the same trend.
That means it would be utterly foolish for any brand to ignore the lure of lifestyle-focussed SUVs and crossovers. That’s also why Alfa Romeo, a brand long associated with engaging dynamics and driver involvement, has rolled out its first ever SUV.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio arrives as the second model from the revitalised Italian automaker, set to join the Giulia sedan in showrooms, and with a large amount of shared componentry beneath the surface.
This crucial new model is pivotal in ensuring Alfa Romeo can secure the income it needs to continue its coming new model push, and in key growth markets for the brand, like the United States and China, an SUV is essential. But can the brand’s history and its new aspirations exist harmoniously?
TMR travelled to Northern Ireland for a first drive of the Stelvio to find out.
Vehicle Style: Prestige medium SUV
Price: From $65,000 plus on-road costs (estimated)
Engine/trans: 149kW/330Nm 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 156kW/450Nm 2.2-litre 4cyl turbo diesel
The Alfa romeo will arrive, initially at least, with a simple range offering a choice of just two engines - one petrol, and one diesel - both matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and both served with Alfa Romeo’s Q4 all-wheel drive system.
From there buyers can opt for a lush Super Lusso trim, or a more performance-flavoured Veloce specification but regardless of the equipment variant safety kit like autonomous emergency braking, forward collision, lane departure warning and six airbags will come included.
The task of applying familiar Alfa Romeo design elements to a taller, bulkier SUV can’t have been an easy one but in the metal the Stelvio looks good. It’s not as finely detailed as the Giulia sedan, but it manages to hide it bulk surprisingly well.
Though it can be hard to tell at a glance, the Stelvio sits on a larger footprint than competitors like the Audi Q5 or BMW X3, with a 4687mm overall length, 1903mm width and 2818mm wheelbase which allows it to straddle the traditional medium and large SUV classes.
There’s a sense of familiarity in the cabin, with the Stelvio borrowing much of its switchgear and controls from its Giulia sibling, although crucial design changes give it a more unique flavour - like the symmetrical dash design in place of the Giulia’s wrap-around cockpit layout.
Inside the Stelvio will pack in standard features including dual-zone climate control, an 8.8-inch infotainment screen with sat nav, Bluetooth and digital radio, but misses out on smartphone mirroring like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Interior space is roomy enough to comfortably carry five, the tall roof line frees up headroom like never before in an Alfa and the rear seat will take two adults or three kids without compromise.
Behind the hatchback-styled tailgate the Stelvio can carry 525 litres of cargo, again cementing its credentials as a family special.
Alfa’s sporting influence is still obvious throughout the cabin with detail touches like a starter button mounted on the flat-bottomed steering wheel, twin-cowl instrument cluster, and retro-inspired turbine-style outboard dash vents.
In terms of functionality the Stelvio doesn’t seem to miss any key details, though interior tech feels a little off pace, with no answer for the likes of the Audi Q5’s virtual cockpit digital instrument cluster, or the Volvo XC60’s all-encompassing iPad-style infotainment. Trim quality doesn’t quite match the levels achieved by German competitors either.
ON THE ROAD
Additional variants will join the range over time, but from launch the Stelvio will be available with a choice of two four-cylinder engines. Either a 2.0-litre turbo petrol producing 149kW and 330Nm or a 2.2-litre turbo diesel good for 156kW and 450Nm.
On the road the Stelvio delivers a light and agile feel, with the road conditions in Northern Ireland matching those you’d expect to find in Australia.
Part of the driving engagement stems from precise and linear steering, while suspension has been set up to deliver a firm and flat attitude. There’s still a requisite amount of compliance over bumps, but hustling the Stelvio through corners reveals a little body roll and a genuine enthusiasm for being punted over an engaging back road.
The standard all wheel drive system has been configured to send power to the rear wheels by default, and should conditions demand up to 50 percent of torque can be allocated to the front wheels.
That in turn endows the Stelvio with the kind of road feel usually reserved for rear-drive cars, and helps keep Alfa Romeo’s enthusiast appeal intact.
Of the available engines the 2.0-litre turbo petrol delivers a more enticing exhaust note, particularly at the top of its rev range where the engine best demonstrates its rpm-flexibility, but the 2.2-litre diesel is simply more effortless, with a strong swell of mid-range torque delivering strong rolling acceleration.
The diesel also exhibits high levels of refinement, while the eight-speed automatic is smooth and fluent, matching driver demands and available engine torque with an intuitively natural flow.
The on-road balance isn't entirely blemish-free though, owing to a brake-by-wire system that lacks the natural progression of a traditional mechanical linkage and can make it difficult to slow down smoothly, particularly at low speeds around town.
Comfortingly for enthusiasts, the Stelvio manages to adhere to Alfa Romeo’s heritage as a sports-focussed brand thanks to its uniquely presented sense of style, and driving dynamics that maintain enthusiast appeal.
Although it may lack the polished presentation and headline infotainment technology of some of its key competitors, it's less anonymous than anything Germany has to offer and proves a legitimate alternative to the current crop of prestige mid-size SUVs.